Chimps catch people’s yawns in sign of flexible empathy

After getting accustomed to people, apes open wide at sight of gape-mouthed human strangers

YAWN BONDS  Chimps catch yawns not only from members of their group but from familiar and unfamiliar people, a new study finds. Researchers suggest that the apes employ this form of empathic behavior with humanlike flexibility.

M. Campbell and F. de Waal 2014/Yerkes National Primate Research Center/Emory Univ.

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Chimpanzees possess a flexible, humanlike sensitivity to the mental states of others, even strangers from another species, researchers suggest March 11 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Empathy’s roots go back at least to the common ancestor of humans and chimps, they say.

Psychologist Matthew Campbell and biologist Frans de Waal, both of Emory University in Atlanta, treated chimps’ tendency to yawn when viewing videotapes of others yawning as a sign of spontaneous empathy. Their research follows other scientists’ observations that young chimps mimic scientists’ yawns (SN Online: 10/16/13).

Nineteen chimps living in an outdoor research facility yawned when they saw the same action from chimps that they lived with, researchers and staff they had seen before and people who were new to them. Unfamiliar chimps and baboons failed to elicit contagious yawning. As in the wild, unfamiliar chimps were probably viewed as threats. Chimps in the study hadn’t seen baboons before.

Having socially connected with facility workers, chimps reacted empathically to human strangers who yawned, the researchers propose.

Imitating others’ facial expressions represents a rapid way to forge empathic ties, Campbell says. His research didn’t test whether chimps spend a lot of time trying to read others’ thoughts and feelings, a more complex type of empathy.

PASS IT ON  Two chimps yawn after seeing video clips of chimps from their own social groups do it. Chimps also yawn just after watching familiar and unfamiliar humans doing it but they won’t imitate baboons and unfamiliar chimps in the behavior. Credit: M. Campbell and F. de Waal 2014/Yerkes National Primate Research Center/Emory Univ.

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